We’re doing something a little different in this episode again – we have a guest to help us see different disciplines’ perspectives on Product Management and healthy product teams.
Continuing our cross-discipline interview series, we have User Experience Designer Jess Lewis joining us for a great chat to find out what it is that they see as what makes a Product Manager click with a team to create and grow a great healthy product team. We also dig into what the biggest differences and similarities are between working within a corporate product team and an agency, along with how user experience folks jam with product folks.
Product Outsiders – Ep 4
Product Outsiders – Ep 4
[00:00:00] Amber Hansford: Welcome to Product Outsiders. We’re not product managers, but we’re close.
In a world of wash and MBAs and fancy suits. Where are the people standing on? Side, our sleeves rolled up, ready to get some stuff done. We’re not product managers and the way you might think, but we’re undeniably passionate about solving problems for real people in ways that create real value, whatever you call us, we’re dedicated to building great collaborative teams and making incredible products.
Today’s episode is continuation of our hot seat interviews, where we look at what we think makes a good product manager and what they can bring to a healthy product team from a different discipline. I’m Amber Hansford, current UX design manager, former product manager, and then former developer.
[00:01:07] Tammy Bulson: I’m Tammy Bolson, I’m an agile coach. I’m certified as a product owner, but I’ve never actually held that role. However, as an agile practitioner, I’m super interested in the dynamics of teams as they work together to build great products.
[00:01:23] Amber Hansford: And today we have joining us Jess Lewis. I worked with Jess a few years back and they are one of my favorite UXers that I’ve worked with in the past. Welcome, Jess, how you doing?
[00:01:38] Jess Lewis: Hey, happy to be here. That’s one of my favorite product owners. You’re the best!
[00:01:45] Amber Hansford: So, what brings you to our little podcast, Product Outsiders?
[00:01:50] Jess Lewis: I just love jamming alongside all my cross-functional teammates and I love talking about the ways that UXers and product owners can work together to really create something that creates like both business value and user value whenever brains collide. So, yeah, I’m happy to jam on that.
[00:02:15] Amber Hansford: Cool. Here’s the $64,000 question. What do you think makes a good product manager?
[00:02:22] Jess Lewis: Okay. So many things. I think things that from my vantage point as an experience designer immediately come to mind. First and foremost, being able to communicate well. And that’s a little bit of being a human in a workplace when a one answer, but there are each of these wonderful people that you have on a team has a very different way of thinking and a very different way of speaking. And often I’ve found that most little team kerfuffles actually come from people just not speaking each other’s languages. And if you have someone who can bring, like rally the troops, across, sort of like linguistic divides or like field linguistic divides and it makes everything that much more useful than being able to communicate and like guide people through a product vision.
I think those are really, really powerful skills.
[00:03:29] Tammy Bulson: I’m so glad that you hit on communication. In some of our past podcasts, we’ve talked a lot about how important it is for a product owner or product manager to have those skills. How about, in your experience, how do you see that kind of interplay from a communication perspective between the people that are on the team and then the people that the product manager has to report up to as far as communication styles, how do you nail that?
[00:03:59] Jess Lewis: The thing that comes to mind, especially that I’ve learned even more so being in an agency, at the agencies I’ve been at, part of what a team might be doing is building a deck that a stakeholder will use to communicate and socialize our work to a higher up. One of the things that I’ve learned, like someone needs to be able to identify at what level they’re flying at and what the priorities of the person that they’re talking to are. So the C level or VP doesn’t really care that much about your day-to-day that’s your job. They have more like macro level priorities and they want to see how your work like plugs into this macro vision that they’re helping to steer. And like what, in being given like tools that they can use, um, whether that be KPI’s or OKRs or whatever it is, these specific things to, to prove your case to the people that they have to talk with. That’s like very, very different like mode of communication. Then getting like initiative level stakeholders, like collaborating and talking to one another and some like something properly socialized within an org. And that’s very different than getting a team on board with a piece of functionality so that you don’t have people obfuscating and sorta gumming up the works. So there’s like very different levels to fly at, so maybe that’s piece of it. That’s the thing that comes to my mind to, to note immediately.
[00:05:39] Tammy Bulson: Yeah. That’s awesome. So they’d have to have the super power of knowing your audience and changing your message.
[00:05:45] Jess Lewis: Yeah. Yeah. Like I had this one primary stakeholder who, for some reason, and this is like a bit of like weird, like micro communication thing, but it really likes subway map diagrams. It was really into subway map diagrams and he was so jazzed when he saw like another team to like communicate some aspects of their project at a high level with the subway map diagram and you know, flows are flows. It doesn’t really matter how you communicate them as long as the message gets sent. So I just started doing all of my flows like subway maps diagrams and it immediately. I dunno, it got him onboard a little bit more. This peculiarity sort of thing of like knowing your audience, but what are there peculiarities? Are you going to like tuck a SlipKnot joke in there because you know, they really like them? Are you going to like add a Wayne’s world gif in there? Cause you know, that that’ll get them really jazzed?
[00:06:51] Amber Hansford: I know that we asked this on our first interview and I feel like it needs to kind of become a tradition. I want to hear a story about when you worked with a great PM and what it was that they did to make you feel that way.
[00:07:07] Jess Lewis: That’s the, I mean, I worked with a couple of great PMs and I’m going to steer away from talking about you, Amber that’s one.
[00:07:16] Amber Hansford: Awww!
[00:07:19] Jess Lewis: I think that this other PM that I worked with, he sort of like did a similar thing, which I really appreciated. We were both on this one project where we had to work very closely to identify parts of the product vision together and be like very closely, just sort of had these jam sessions to talk through from his vantage point what were the things that needed to be included. And did that, was that on board with what I was seeing and that sort of like gateway for a conversation to germinate about where the Venn diagram fell and what was sort of like an outlier for me versus him. Like whenever we were working together, our conversations were very similar that allowed us to be like really aligned. And for me to advocate for things via the concrete user interface and the system that navigates it, that is behind it. And for him to advocate that to like higher up stakeholders and through like suites of functionality and backlogs. So yeah.
[00:08:36] Tammy Bulson: Wonderful. What’s the best and or the most striking thing between being embedded in a product versus agency work.
[00:08:45] Jess Lewis: The primary difference that I’ve like honed in on, because I’ve been in agencies that are like less embedded in the teams that we’re working with and more recently, very, very embedded in the teams that we’re working with. And that, it just seems like we’re a remote contractor sort of like on the team and people just assume that we work with the company and then ah surprise we’re an agency that sort of vibe? And throughout both of those dynamics, because they are very different dynamics from the agency side, the thing that is common in different from working internal is the, you don’t really see the thing that you’re working on, go through many iterations. You don’t like usher a product through different life cycles. You don’t like continually gather data on it and, and tone it, and do all the rituals around that continual process, you just sort of, there’s a point at which the project starts wrapping up. And as a designer, you start working on something else and oftentimes you don’t even really see it wrap up. You just like hand off your deliverables, like handle some questions or QA things and move on and hope that see it in the wild. So that’s a really big difference. I’d say.
[00:10:19] Tammy Bulson: Yeah, that must be. Great answer.
[00:10:22] Amber Hansford: It’s honestly kind of sad.
[00:10:24] Jess Lewis: Yeah. It kind of like sometimes falls down a black hole and like, oh, well that was a cool thing we designed that I guess never happened for whatever reason.
[00:10:35] Amber Hansford: Oh. I try to kind of mentor and train my teams to never be afraid to throw away your work, but there’s gotta be a reason to throw away your work. . Yeah. Now that we’re all sad.
[00:10:51] Jess Lewis: That’s like centered around the fact that I like want to be working on more continual products, stuff like that. So that informs that bad answer in that like vantage point. So it just, yeah,
[00:11:03] Amber Hansford: I mean, I completely get it. I would constantly have many, many Google alerts set up for anything that I worked on that I didn’t actually get to see through to fruition. And maybe that’s subconsciously why I’ve avoided agencies. I don’t know.
[00:11:21] Jess Lewis: That makes sense. It’s a difficult thing to sort of grapple with.
[00:11:27] Amber Hansford: So what is that one golden nugget? That one thing that you feel like is the best skill that a product manager can have, whether it would be written down on a job description or just in working with them day to day.
[00:11:47] Jess Lewis: I keep, I’m not sure if I can, like, maybe they’ll come around to putting us into lovely encapsulated like nugget, but… I keep coming back around the ability to like communicate at these different levels because I’ve seen it in the past couple of years, especially, what happens when work isn’t properly socialized and the issues that creates for everyone. You also need to be able to… You need to be able to rally people. Very different people around very different things in order to push something forward. Yeah. And that requires you to sort of build relationships across an org and like strike a balance and building those relationships, I guess. Yeah, I guess like being able to rally folks of different stripes of around different things.
[00:12:49] Amber Hansford: is one of those things that is integral to a healthy product team just in general. But without that cheerleader, for lack of a better phrase of the product person, being able to help. Let me just mix my metaphors some more steer the ship, um. You know, and that rallying point, you know, you’ve gotta be able to trust that the product manager at the end of the day that they’re steering the ship in the right direction. But yeah, that’s, that’s really like 90% of it’s communication.
[00:13:27] Jess Lewis: I think that’s listening to, because some people just want to hold on to a vision and don’t let it evolve. And it’s kind of sad when you have like a ton of really fantastic brains in the room. And a lot of years of experience and knowledge in the room and people are jelling and wanting to help shape something and feel a sense of ownership. And that doesn’t happen just because of, um, whatever the reason is. It could be a range of reasons, but it just isn’t allowed to happen by the person. So, I guess you’ve got to be able to steering the ship, adjust the, what you’re navigating by. Check for different constellations to bring you to a destination. What a metaphor casserole.
[00:14:23] Amber Hansford: I love it. I love it. I’m a fan of analogies and metaphors always have been, always will be. I think you touched on that, that there are some times we spoke before in a previous podcast about this concept of the single wringable neck, that a lot of product folk are taught is their job. That honestly, I think we were working together when I was still under some weird delusion. I would say to the team, you know, if we win, we all win. And if we fail, it’s all my fault.
[00:14:58] Jess Lewis: Yeah, yeah. I remember that.
[00:15:00] Amber Hansford: And it’s so unhealthy. Yeah, I’ve grown since then, but it can take that manner of not being able to either listen or communicate properly to a multitude of disciplines, of personalities in just a base of either, at the tameness, I don’t want to kill my darlings and at its worst, territorialism. And trying to find that healthy balance to get things out there is probably one of the things that is the hardest to learn. And the also the hardest to teach.
[00:15:37] Jess Lewis: Yeah. What advice and sorry I didn’t mean to turn the tables, but what, uh, nuggets of advice would you have for folks were like actively navigating that in their careers? It’s, I’m sure it’s like a continual learning process. It’s something that you don’t stop. It’s like a career, like thing, it sounds like.
[00:15:59] Amber Hansford: Being able to adapt on the fly is something that you will never be able to put on your resume. There’s no succinct way to put that into a page or two, but that ability to almost take, I call it my worst case scenario, brain. Um, I joke around that my grandmother is sitting in the back of my head, just waiting and telling me exactly how everything can go, absolutely horrifically wrong and let’s plan for that. And then if it doesn’t happen, you’ve done your job. Um, but you know, trying to be as proactive as possible, making sure that you’ve got structures in place, processes in place, that work when you need them to and get out of your way when they aren’t necessary. A lot of folks hear process and structure. And then next thing you know, you’re reading a book and it’s a Bible and you must follow it. X, Y, Z. And that’s not real life. There’s just no real life there. You’ve gotta be able to see where you’re going enough, that you don’t trip and throw everything into disarray and don’t just spend your life being reactive.
Thank you for coming to my Ted talk.
[00:17:18] Jess Lewis: Yeah, that like line, uh, like that, that difference between adaptability and reactivity seems like a really useful thing to spend a lot of time meditating on, just as a person, generally, and also as a practitioner or like a leader trying to build cool things.
[00:17:41] Amber Hansford: Yeah. And I think sometimes we get in our own ways by focusing, yes, this is a really cool thing, but does it solve a problem? That sometimes gets lost. And then there’s other folks that are just like, you know, purely, I’ve got a problem and I need to solve it without the cool part. You need both. You need flexibility and a structure in place just to throw yet another analogy out there into the wild, I used to say. I could sit there and I could play and I could be, you know, full on start-up, but mom and dad would be able to bail me out at some of the larger companies that I worked at that had those, you know, pure R and D innovation, just slap it against the wall, see if it sticks, but you found out really easily and very quickly that if it’s just cool, or if it’s just solving a problem, it probably won’t be used outside of the necessity aspect of that solving a problem or the shameless early adopters.
[00:18:45] Jess Lewis: Yeah. And agencies, I specifically seeing that like cool factor, mainly used to be a shiny thing to attract the client, but you might be like coming to an agency it’s like solve a really, honestly, usually very direct problems. Like, you know, like need your website redesigned. Okay. You need a different shopping experience. Okay. You need, um, I mean, brand. Cool. Done that a thousand times. That’s great. But the thing that might sell people in to one agency over another is the shiny, like little shiny factor, which is a weird dynamic, a lot of like R and D arms only exist, or the client walkthroughs like it’s, I’ve like had friends like be at their places for the client walk through like fake, like soldering something together, but, uh, um. It’s kind of trippy honestly when you think about it. That’s the another interesting way that I’ve seen, like the purely like cool stuff oh, shiny be used in a way that it doesn’t seem to actually bring much use to the world. It’s mostly just to like sell in a couple of mil. You know?
[00:20:09] Amber Hansford: You’ve got to find that balance to be able to solve the problem in a cool way. I guess there were plenty of corporations that I worked at that also had the complete theater aspect of look at these really cool things that we’ve put together, that are meaningless. I worked at a very large media corporation and we had a lot of contracts with other sports agencies, entertainment agencies, things like that. So we would pull out the, the agency model of the look at this really shiny thing that we built, not actually ever going to get used, because it, it wasn’t anything that our customers, our viewers actually cared about, but yeah, it got us a couple of really spicy contracts though.
[00:21:00] Jess Lewis: Yeah, that usability aspect is so good. But the thing that always gets me is how often the backbone that gets you to understanding what is usable, user research, gets super waylaid in the process of creating anything. It’s the first thing to get cut. The absolute first thing, it’s the backbone of everything. It’s certainly how I think about UX. It’s very difficult for me to design anything useful when I don’t have a goal in mind and associate that with big, like having everything be research based. If I’m not basing things in research or in the user’s context alongside business needs, of course, then balancing those two that I’m just pulling assumptions out of my rear end and trying to like shove it into what looks like a business shaped hole. Even more metaphors for me, that’s like the second part of this ship.
[00:22:15] Amber Hansford: Yeah. Here we go. I love it. Just to, to kind of play off of the research. God bless. If you actually do get the product folk going, yes, we need this user research. We need this, we need this. And they do it once and they think they’re done. Yeah. Yeah, we got it. We got it down. Let’s move on and let’s build this thing and get it out there. And then they never go back and find out whether or not they were successful.
[00:22:42] Jess Lewis: Yeah. Yeah. That stunned me. How little people think about how they want to measure their success. They just like launch a thing and don’t even think about like, well, what does success mean to us? Does that mean more sign-ups, of what percent? Does that mean that people click through a process with a lot of products, like some of the Google maps integrations, I think it’s actually successful whenever you get a person to log out of the system and not complete a process, because it means that they’ve found the thing that they were looking for. If you don’t do follow-up research, if you don’t check in, in some way, or these like have like little stop gates in place to pulse check. Uh, how do we know that that is a thing that measures success because in most contexts that’s just a person logged out of your system. What? Whoa, they didn’t complete the intended path. That’s terrible. Not actually, they got they needed. And they still super pressed yet. So. That’s good.
[00:23:55] Amber Hansford: They didn’t finish their NPS survey. What?
[00:24:00] Tammy Bulson: From agile perspective, if we’re not doing that, then we can’t deliver that smallest, most valuable thing and measure the effectiveness so that we can build the next smallest, best thing in the next iteration. So that’s huge, Jess. I’m glad you brought it up. If we don’t, you know, if we don’t have the user feedback, how do we know that we’re doing the right thing or that we’re going to build the right next thing?
[00:24:23] Jess Lewis: Yeah, totally. How do you find yourself setting that up in really useful by at least in your experience, Tammy?
[00:24:30] Tammy Bulson: In my experience, it’s a constant reminder because we get so busy and it’s so easy to focus on that output that we have to constantly remind the people that we work with, that, Hey, when we deliver something, first of all, we have to know going in what our expectations are, how are we going to measure success? And then we have to remember, once it’s gone out, we have to circle back and say, okay, this is what our hypothesis was. Did our hypothesis prove out? And if it didn’t, what are we going to do next? And if you don’t have that user feedback, you can’t do it. So it’s, in my experience, it’s a constant drum that we have to beat to keep reminding us to go back. It seems elementary, but in practice it’s not.
[00:25:12] Jess Lewis: Yeah. It’s so easy to become sort of like hypnotized delivering these concrete things. Like even the language of deliverable, delivery, like pushing code, it’s like a specific thing that you serve and manipulate. I also really appreciate the language of hypothesis. I find that personally, really the useful framework to use in thinking about the whole process holistically. And it helps in communicating with cross-functional teammates because everyone sort of gets the idea of a hypothesis, but maybe they slept through, you know, chemistry class, which is fine. The necessity of coming back around and seeing if it’s true or not, it seems really helpful. Have you seen people like glom on to that framework?
[00:26:03] Tammy Bulson: I think so. A lot of the teams I’ve worked with use that empirical evidence thinking they have that scientific approach. So yeah, I think it is, it’s something that most people will understand. If you’re going to form a hypothesis, you always have to circle back and see whether or not it was proven. Yeah, I think it’s pretty adoptable.
[00:26:21] Jess Lewis: That’s cool.
[00:26:22] Amber Hansford: I think if you can approach it in that hypothesis forward, it’s easier for the entire team. That’s product, UX, dev, QE, et cetera. All of them can get on the same page and it makes being able to focus on that customer problem. If you can target down a hypothesis, whether you’re just throwing a quick problem statement and hypothesis together on the fly, or whether it’s a more formal, like design thinking workshop that it’s happening and it helps get the entire team on the same page and speaking the same language. And then your role in, when your product, becomes a hell of a lot easier because you’ve already gotten like half the battle done by getting everybody speaking the same language.
Alright, well, I think we’re going to wrap it up here. Thank you so much for coming out and chatting with us, Jess. I really appreciate it and I miss you so much.
[00:27:32] Jess Lewis: I miss you too. It was wonderful to meet you Tammy, and to chat with both of y’all. Thank you so much for having me.
[00:27:38] Tammy Bulson: Yeah, likewise.
[00:27:40] Amber Hansford: And for those folks listening at home, thank you so much for listening to another episode of Product Outsiders. We are looking for your feedback. Please hit up our website, product outsiders.com or find us on any of the major podcasting platforms and leave us a review or a like, or subscribe.
Stay Gold, Outsiders.
[00:28:04] Tammy Bulson: Stay Gold.